A road construction project on Alcoa Highway from Hall Road to Hunt Road will start next summer, Gov. Bill Haslam announced during a Monday press conference in the Sevier Heights Baptist Church parking lot.

The Blount County project is one of two the governor touted Monday as benefiting from the IMPROVE Act he signed into law on April 26: the half-mile stretch from Hall Road to a new Hunt Road interchange, and a 2.5-mile stretch of Alcoa Highway from north of Topside Road to north of Maloney Road in Knox County. These two projects will cost $75 million together, but will improve the safety of what public officials agreed Monday is a dangerous highway.

“Alcoa Highway has long been known as one of the most problematic roads in our state, and there has been a plan on paper for a long time,” Haslam said, noting that the IMPROVE Act “literally” cuts in half the time these two projects would have taken to complete.

An acronym for Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy, the IMPROVE Act cut $270 million in annual taxes — including business taxes on manufacturers, sales tax on groceries and the Hall income tax — while increasing transportation-related sales taxes, including a 4-cent per gallon gas tax increase that went into effect July 1, and will be followed by 1-cent increases in 2018 and 2019.

“This is the largest tax cut in the history of Tennessee, and it funds 962 projects across all 95 counties,” Haslam said.

Lives lost

Alcoa Highway serves as a primary commuter route between Blount and Knox counties and provides access to businesses and McGhee Tyson Airport, according to a press release issued by the Tennessee Department of Transportation on Monday. More than 57,000 vehicles travel the corridor each day.

“Having spent 30 years of my life in public service and emergency services, I’ve had the opportunity on more than one occasion to see the devastating effects on lives and families because of wrecks on this road,” said Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell. “And it was not a tax increase. It was a tax cut. That’s the best of both worlds where I live.”

Alcoa Mayor Don Mull said he knew when the state legislature passed the IMPROVE Act that long-planned Alcoa Highway improvement projects would speed up.

“The average citizen does not realize that we do not float bonds for roads,” he said, referring to Tennessee being a pay-as-you-go state that does not issue debt to fund transportation projects. “The safety of this road is paramount to all of us.”

The danger of Alcoa Highway was mentioned over and over again by state and local officials attending the press conference.

“Everybody benefits from these road improvements, whether you live here or are just passing through,” said Maryville City Manager Greg McClain. “Anyone who has lived here for some time knows someone who has died on that road. I can name four or five. That’s why I appreciate the governor and the legislators passing the IMPROVE Act.”

West Plant

The half-mile stretch from Hall Road to a new Hunt Road interchange also is crucial to Alcoa’s redevelopment of the former ALCOA Inc. West Plant site, said Alcoa Assistant City Manager Bill Hammon. The Local Interstate Connector, now named Tesla Boulevard, that serves the West Plant site will go under Alcoa Highway to connect the redevelopment to the airport, he explained. Therefore, the half-mile stretch will include building those two underpasses as well as new off and on ramps to Hunt Road and replacing the existing Hunt Road bridge with one wide enough to handle increased traffic.

“We are really, really excited to see this get underway,” Hammon said.

The two projects that will start in the summer of 2018 are part of a larger plan to improve Alcoa Highway, noted TDOT Commissioner John Schroer.

“Alcoa Highway is six different projects for us,” the commissioner said. “Because we don’t have transportation debt, we cut our projects into smaller pieces. But without the IMPROVE Act, these six projects would have taken 15 years to complete.”

The 1.4-mile section of Alcoa Highway from Maloney Road to Woodson Drive in Knox County has been under construction since spring 2016 and is expected to be complete in November 2019, according to a press release. Design work and right-of-way acquisition are proceeding on the three remaining Alcoa Highway projects.

Lesli Bales-Sherrod has written for multiple East Tennessee newspapers, as well as working in communications for the federal government in Washington, D.C., twice, in addition to her favorite job as mom of two. She covers Alcoa, Maryville and Townsend.

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